It may not reach the ambitious heights of How to Train Your Dragon or Toy Story 3, but you have to admit: Despicable Me rates a mention if for no other reason than its ad campaign. I distrust all film trailers, but I cannot recall an animated film built up so effectively by the "Gabbo! Gabbo! Gabbo!" approach to teasers. It's a bold gambit to use with a movie targeted to children, not renowned for their attention spans and typically sold to kids with the most condescending disregard imaginable. (It prepares them for all trailers. See: Grown-Ups.) The manner with which the marketing department kept the plot of this film under wraps while generating interest rivals the surreal teasers for Christopher Nolan's upcoming thriller Inception.
Yet Despicable Me has an entertaining, if unoriginal, blend of slapstick and pathos, enough to provide the briefest respite in what may be the worst summer of my 20 -- no, 21 now -- years on this planet. Its protagonist, Gru (Steve Carell), is a villain whose intelligence and ambition do not quite place him in the upper echelon of supervillains as his reach too often exceeds his grasp. After a brief but amusing opening sequence establishes that someone (not Gru) managed to steal the Great Pyramids of Giza, the diminutive evildoer hunts for the new mastermind responsible for the crime of the century while planning an even bigger heist to cement his own name. His idea? Steal the Moon.
Unfortunately, this plot hits the wall fairly quickly: Gru's conflict with the young upstart who rises to sudden prominence, Vector (Jason Segel), begins without steady lead-in and falls away quickly. Sparring over a shrink ray that will allow the wielder to shrink the Moon, Gru and Vector get off a few uproarious scenes of over-the-top fighting, with Gru's fondness for missiles of all sizes and payloads and Vector's penchant for bizarre, marine animal-based weaponry. Yet the storyline shifts suddenly when three orphaned girls -- Margo, Edith and Agnes -- walk around the neighborhood selling cookies. Gru turns them away, but when he sees them get through the defenses in Vector's fortress that kept the rival away, the villain decides that the girls could offer him a way inside Vector's home and a shot at stealing the shrink ray.
I'll leave to figure where the movie heads from here. The presence of the girls, one cautious and hardened from years of loneliness, one venting her own issues through destructive tendencies and the other an adorable miscreant not yet able to comprehend the rotten quality of her life in any meaningful sense, must inevitably lead the scabrous, egomaniacal Gru to become a better man. This would be fine and dandy if it mixed in with the original plot, but Despicable Me slams on the brakes at this point, almost completely tossing out the enticing idea of a fight between two villains for supremacy in a world that seemingly lacks superheroes as a counterbalance.
Thus, the film moves in such a disjointed fashion that its 95 minutes feel twice as long. The total downshift from an epic war between inventive villains with no regard for collateral damage to a pat, sentimental tale of a man learning to love grates like two metal sheets shrieking against each other. Gru uses them to his intended goal in short order, leaving the majority of the film to a plot that's rushed even as it plods along the typical path to feel-good mush.
"When we got adopted by a bald guy," Edith says upon arriving at Gru's twisted mansion and realizing that their adoption might not solve all their problems, "I thought this would be more like Annie." She must not have paid attention, because Despicable Me plays exactly like Annie with a more action-packed twist. Daddy Warbucks didn't take kindly to the orphan in his home either, only for Annie's plucky charm to eventually melt his heart.
Of the three children, Agnes is easily the most visible. An overload of cuteness, Agnes is shamelessly manipulative in design to grab the audience's heartstrings without any effort. To be sure, her mere presence bypasses an intuitive and subtle emotional arc in favor of puppy eyes and the dramatic irony that can only come from a toddler who doesn't understand how depressing her optimism really is. Yet she's such a fun character that the effrontery of her usage does not derail the picture and is instead one of its greatest aspects. Her obsession with unicorns and all things fluffy make her the cutest girl to appear in animation since Boo in Monsters Inc.
Her cuteness is counterbalanced by the hilarity of Gru's minions. A sea of tiny, yellow, gibbering creatures, the minions waver between massive incompetence and an almost Oompa-Loompa-type efficiency, devolving into infighting and office pranksterism yet proving their mettle when it counts. Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud mine these mad blobs for all they're worth, subjecting them to the experiments of Gru's aged, hearing-impaired assistant, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand(?)), having them punch each other over mischievous activity and even messing with their bodies when one cracks another's back and shakes him until the assaulted minion emits a neon yellow like a glow stick. Not a single scene involving the minions fails to get a laugh and, combined with Agnes' endearing adorableness, they float what would otherwise be a lackadaisical comedy.
The great shame of the film is that the potential to be a great animated picture lies in plain sight. Some more adult humor finds its way into the picture, such as a gag involving a secret bank that lends millions to supervillains around the world noting on a plaque that it used to be Lehman Brothers. The simple notion of two villains duking it out for prominence without a hero to intervene could have made for a delicious game of animated oneupsmanship, which exists at the beginning and end and could have stretched the imaginations of the animators with increasingly outlandish fights in what would basically have been a matter of two Bond villains emptying all their ridiculous devices at each other. Instead, it takes the easy way out, using a rotten, context-less score by Hans Zimmer and Heitor Pereira and a few close-ups to wrench emotionality that the film does not earn.
Still, it's funny enough to warrant a viewing, and even the smallest snatches of enjoyment are welcome in a year as wretched as this. I laughed a great deal and bordered on whispering an "awwww" or two despite my own best interests, and if the film was just a bit tighter I might have recommended it unconditionally over my wishes to see the villain war continue uninterrupted. But there is one lovely piece of thoughtfulness in the nexus point where the two plots meet: Gru's mother. Through her, we see a neglected boy, whose dreams of becoming an astronaut were dashed by a snarky parent, now on the cusp of ensuring that no one else could ever know his dream of walking on the Moon. At the same time, his adopted children provide him with the opportunity to break the cycle of neglect and loneliness that made him so miserable. That line is not fully explored, but it's just one more hint that makes an average movie entertaining, and could have made it so much more.